Having opened the door to reform of the link, there is no going back
‘Clause IV moment’ has become a synonym for a deliberate decisive shift in a policy which positively transforms a party’s fortunes. The main myth of Tony Blair’s ‘Clause IV moment’ was that it was a moment. It was not. To describe the dramatic changes to Clause IV, Part IV of the Labour party’s constitution as a one-off coup de théâtre is to fundamentally misunderstand what happened.
Hugh Gaitskell tried it first, of course, in 1959, and failed. He failed mostly because he had not done the groundwork to persuade people of his case. Gaitskell’s heroic defeat became part of Labour folklore: you cannot touch Clause IV without being turned to stone.
After Labour’s fourth defeat in 1992, the modernisers around Neil Kinnock understood that fundamental change was needed if Labour was ever to win again. Blair did not change Clause IV out of a blue sky. In 1993 Jack Straw researched and published Policy and Ideology, a pamphlet which showed that the original Clause IV was knocked out quickly to stave off the far-left’s claims on the Labour party’s ideology, and was adopted with little ceremony or discussion. Straw’s pamphlet advocated an updated statement of aims. He took it to the then-leader John Smith, who lost his temper and threw it in Straw’s face.
In February 1994, Kinnock wrote and presented a TV programme, Tomorrow’s Socialism, for the BBC. The former Labour leader produced a revised Clause IV, and proposed that Labour should ditch the old one. Again, Smith rejected the idea.
Blair decided two years before he became leader in 1994 to change Clause IV, but discussed it with none of his friends or allies, even Gordon Brown. Having won round his deputy, John Prescott, the idea appeared in his first speech as leader, in Blackpool on 4 October 1994. It was sneaked in at the end, in deliberately opaque language, which gave space to the spin doctors to explain to journalists what it meant. One legend has the final page of the speech missing from the advance copies handed to the media.
What happened next forms the most important lesson of Blair’s reforms to Clause IV. The announcement was followed by an intensive six-month campaign. The very next day, the unions, with their 70 per cent of conference votes, insisted on a vote to uphold Clause IV, which was passed. The reform to Clause IV was no fix: it was a six-month battle for the party’s soul. A Defend Clause IV Campaign was formed by Arthur Scargill and hard-left MPs and MEPs. An arm’s-length Campaign for a New Clause IV was created to make the case, staffed by former Labour Students and Young Fabians. Debate took place in every constituency and section of the party. Blair embarked on a nationwide tour, speaking to packed Labour clubs, community centres, and, on one occasion, the Rivoli Ballroom in Lewisham.
In January 1995, the National Executive Committee advised constituency Labour parties to ballot individual members. Where this happened, they overwhelmingly backed change: 467 CLPs out of 470. The Scottish conference backed the change. Two unions balloted their membership and supported change, including the UCW under its general secretary, Alan Johnson; those that did not backed the status quo. Brown and Tony Wright helpfully published Values, Visions and Voices, an anthology of socialist writings, to reassure party members there was more to socialism than Sidney Webb’s hurried definition. By the time of the special conference on 29 April 1995 thousands of members had debated the fundamentals of their values and beliefs. Change was supported by 65 per cent to 35 per cent, with 90 per cent of CLPs supporting the change and the T&G and Unison against.
Blair won the argument, but also vanquished his hard left opponents. Scargill left the Labour party, and the once-mighty National Union of Mineworkers disaffiliated. Only three of the 16 MEPs who signed a statement opposing Blair over Clause IV went on to be selected for winnable seats. The Campaign Group of MPs in parliament was marginalised. If a fight is worth winning, there will be losers. Blair said of those six months: ‘It was a real fight with real opponents and real pain. However, it also meant we had to win it or we were finished.’
If Ed Miliband wants his changes to the union-party link to be his ‘Clause IV moment’, he needs to learn the lessons. The change must be a real change, not a fix or fudge. It must command the support of the party’s members and activists. It must come as the culmination of a ferment of debate and discussion. It must capture the public mood, and form part of a broader reconnection to the electorate. It must engender respect from influential media commentators. It must demonstrate decisive leadership and, above all, courage. And it must be a fight to the death.
As Sean Connery tells Kevin Costner in The Untouchables, on the brink of a raid on Al Capone’s operation, ‘Once you enter this door, there’s no going back.’
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